In a new proposal, the U.S. Space Force is asking Congress to overhaul the tools it uses to acquire new space systems, allowing the new service to move with more agility and keep pace with near-peer adversaries.
“Our nation requires a bold Alternative Space Acquisition System that not only matches the pace of change but also manages unpredictability and regularly disrupts our adversaries’ threat cadence," the Department of the U.S. Air Force report concludes. “The features outlined in this report will create a new space acquisition approach for the USSF that is the envy of all other services and ultimately enables the USSF to rapidly leverage industry innovation to outpace space threats.”
When Congress passed legislation establishing the Space Force as the nation’s sixth branch of the armed services in December, it included a provision requiring the Secretary of the Air Force to provide a report by the end of March on whether the military should adopt an alternative space acquisition system. While the Pentagon did deliver a report to Congress in March, it largely kicked the can down the road on any specific acquisitions reforms. Space Force leadership have touted this more detailed acquisitions report as “groundbreaking” in recent appearances.
The new report, which was first reported by Bloomberg Government, includes nine specific proposals to improve Space Force contracting, although it doesn’t make any suggestions towards unifying the various organizations involved in purchasing space platforms and systems, such as the Space Development Agency, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Space and Missile Systems Center, or the National Reconnaissance Office, which purchases satellites for the intelligence community.
Instead, the report’s recommendations include changes to the contracting tools and reporting requirements the Space Force will use to acquire new systems, with a focus on increasing flexibility and delegating authority. Three of the suggestions require legislative action, while the remaining proposals will simply require internal Department of Defense adjustments.
Perhaps the most important recommendation in the report, according to the Air Force, is the consolidation of budget line items along mission portfolios, such as missile warning or communications, instead of by platform. While this has been done on a limited basis in the past for the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and some classified efforts, it marks a change from standard DoD budgeting practices.
Theoretically, this would allow the Space Force to move funding between missile warning systems without having to submit reprogramming requests to Congress, something it did several times last year in order to move up the delivery date for the first Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellite. The Air Force’s repeated reprogramming requests rankled some members of Congress, leading to a fight between lawmakers and the White House over the program’s funding for fiscal 2020.
The Air Force claims this fix is needed to give program managers the flexibility to adapt to growing threats. According to the report, transparency at the program level would be preserved in future budget documents. This change would not require legislation.
Beyond that, the Air Force is asking Congress for permission to push milestone decision authority down the chain of command, similar to what’s been demonstrated by the Missile Defense Agency and National Reconnaissance Office. This change would speed up decision making for space programs.
The third major change the Air Force is pursuing is authority for the Space Force to use incremental funding for space systems and programs. This “Efficient Space Procurement” coding was used to acquire the fifth and sixth satellites in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites at the same time as well as the fifth and sixth Space-Based Infrared System satellites, resulting in significant savings. The department claims full funding each space vehicle has lead to affordability issues in the past, and can “lead to production breaks, obsolescence, and industrial base impacts.” Instead, the department wants to spread out funding for satellites over multiple years to help keep costs in check and avoid funding spikes.
Other changes include streamlining requirements validation and reporting requirements.
“Under these reforms, our Nation’s newest military service will have unprecedented agility to build resilient, defendable, and affordable space capabilities through streamlined processes and closer partnerships with one of America’s decisive advantages—its innovative and rapidly changing commercial space industry,” Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett wrote in the introduction to the report.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.